Mary McGuinness Interview (2024)

This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

The first interview of 2024, belongs to Nashville based singer-songwriter Mary McGuinness. We get deep into her songwriting process, and breakdown a bit of her single “Bounded Beauty” from her new album, Shadow Catcher. While the video above will have clips of her released single, as well as the demo. If you prefer to read, you won’t be lost by any means. It’s just a good chat about songwriting. 

You can watch the interview above. Or read it below. Also, if you enjoy the video version, I’d love if you hopped on YouTube and subscribed. Thanks!

 Jade Dempsey: When did you first start playing and singing?

Mary McGuinness: I was always singing as long as I can remember…and then I started doing classical music, and that kind of started in high school. But I didn’t really start doing guitar, and trying to write anything, until I was in my early 20’s.

Did you play guitar before that? 

Not at all. I started teaching myself. I didn’t play guitar at all. But it’s so funny, you know, it’s like I wonder how much is like a divine plan, because I remember rehearsing all the time in front of a mirror, as if I had a guitar, and with like a mic [laughs]. And I was totally not doing that…but it’s really funny how it’s turned out.

What was your first guitar?

My first guitar? Gosh…it was a really terrible one. I think that’s why I can’t remember. It wasn’t any kind of brand…But I remember for the longest time I couldn’t play it, ‘cause it had steel strings, and I didn’t realize. I was like “oh my God, I don’t know how people play guitar!” It was so hard. And then I realized when I took it back, and they were like “no, you have to change the strings, find the right gauge”…so I always tell people I run into, who are like “I picked up a guitar. It’s so hard” have you changed the strings? It’s something they should tell people, when they know they’re a brand new guitar player.

But you know, my first guitar that I would say that my first real guitar that I have, that is my prized guitar, is a Gibson. It’s a 1942 banner Gibson. And I got it like 11 years ago. I got it in Chicago, at the Chicago Music [Exchange]. I was on tour, and I had been looking for you know…I had been using other guitars and stuff. But yeah, when I held that guitar, I was like, this is, this is the guitar! And so they had to do some work on the neck, and then they shipped it to me. And I mean I have some guitars that I love, but that’s like my it. There’s so much history on that guitar, the grooves. There’s grooves in the fingerboard where someone had played it, had loved this guitar so much. So everytime I pick it up I fell like I’m picking up a little bit of history. Like, I wish I knew who had owned it before. 

Definitely. I don’t have any banner Gibson’s, I’d love a banner Gibson. But it’s like when I got my second electric in 2020, after like 13 years. It was the Fender I’d been searching for, but couldn’t find one I loved. It’s like a 2012 American Special. I was like, “oh my God, this is it”. I don’t know why no other kind of fit that way. You know?

It just fits you, and it’s the sound. It’s how it fits your body. You just hold it and you’re like…I don’t know what it is. There’s a vibration, something magical going on. I don’t know.

Now getting into your music. Talk a little bit about your new album.

Well, it’s called Shadow Catcher. It became the title track, because of this song called “Shadow Catcher” that I wrote with Jane Knowles. And I just loved this song; but I also felt that it summed up the past couple years for me. I was telling someone, that I thought I’d been eating a lot of grubs and worms for a while [laughs], and it’s just kind of like taking whatever life throws at you, and kind of transforming it the best way you can. It’s not always about finding the light in the dark, but seeing in the dark, as well. Like just trying to put one foot forward. I think it’s really hard on people when they feel like they’re supposed to be happy all the time. There’s a thing, I think they call it toxic positivity. Like sometimes it’s good to just feel how you’re feeling. And that’s normal. It’s part of the human existence. We’re not meant to be [cheerful] every single day. And I think that I always find my best songs come out of like, darker times. Or you know, I’m going through something. When everything is great and amazing, I don’t know, usually nothing really good comes out [laughs]. Unless it’s like a really happy song. But yeah, I think there was a lot of change. I moved to Nashville, a little over a year and a half ago. And I left a lot of things I love behind. Another song that came out of it was “Keep Dreaming” on the record. I just felt like it was the time, that I really wanted to move here and be surrounded by other songwriters. And I had been coming here once a month, and I just sat up in bed one day and was like, I need to move to Nashville, and two months later, you know, I was here. So I feel like I was being called to come to Nashville. I feel like we’re called when we’re supposed to make a big shift in our lives, you know? Sometimes when things are too easy, you get too comfortable…I still feel like I’m finding my feet here. But I basically came and just threw myself into writing, and was lucky to write with such great co-writers. And then I just recorded it, and have been releasing singles of this record since September…
I moved a few times, broke my ankle, it was just kinda, like a chock full year and a half. But I’m really glad I did it.

So it was the songwriting more than maybe the music of Nashville. You wanted to be surrounded by songwriters?

Yes, for sure. I had been living in Los Angeles, and I had toured a long time. And then I kept making music, but wasn’t touring. I really wanted to be with my daughter. I really didn’t want to be away, to not be with her when she was young. And I’m really glad I did that, but I never stopped writing, and I never stopped releasing music. But then I just felt like I really wanted to be in a place where it’s all about music. I mean, you can’t really go anywhere here without buying into someone who’s a songwriter, musician, singer, you know? It’s just everywhere here, and I really love that. I think it’s one of the few cities in the world, probably, that’s so devoted to music, and all kinds of music you know? Definitely not just country music or Americana. I mean it’s all kinds of music here. So something is calling us all here. So yeah, I’m really happy I made the move.

Yeah. I did an interview with Tyler Bryant, and I asked him (because he grew up in Texas), “why not Austin?” And he said it was because he wanted to be a songwriter, and the same, Nashville called to him. Austin was for live music, whereas Nashville was the place to immerse yourself in all music and songwriting.

Yeah, I think so too. And it’s, you know, there’s so many music venues and places to play. And yeah, I’m really happy I made the move here.

You talked about meeting a lot of different songwriters. Do you prefer writing with other people as opposed to yourself?

Yeah, I think so. I know my first record that I released under Mary, in 2020. I wrote by myself and it was just like a week of intense writing. And I think a lot of my ideas, I always go when I have a co-write, I’m probably overly prepared. I usually go with at least half a song, whether it’s the verses or the chorus. The title usually follows, all of the titles on the record are my titles. And I have a concept of what I want to write about. But I really enjoy the creative process, with someone. Everyone is so different. But also it just get really lonely wiring by yourself, you know? It can be very isolating. So I definitely love writing with other writers. And sometimes it’s great. You get along great as people , and then you click creatively. Sometimes you cannot click with someone as a person, yet you can write really well together, and vice-versa. So it’s like you never quite know, what’s going to happen…But I definitely love writing with other writers more than I like writing by myself. It’s also really nice if like you’re stuck somewhere, that you have someone who’s like “oh, I hear this!” And you’re like “oh thank God”. So yeah, I love it.

You said you generally have half a song, when you have that, so you have a certain writer in mind? Or how does that work?

No, I don’t think I have a certain writer in mind. I think usually the lyrics will come to me first…I usually like to have a story to craft the song around. I find it much easier to write the music around the story, because then I can kind of figure out what’s the vibe and what I’m going for. What’s the feeling? What’s the atmosphere of the song? But…no I wouldn’t say at this point…maybe further down the road I’ll be like, “I want this person to write with me on this”. But yeah, it’s just, I’ve been lucky to meet some great songwriters. And then we say “Hey, let’s try writing something.” And it doesn’t alway turn out great. I mean I think I wrote probably sixteen songs for this record. You know, there’s 10.

So it just kinda happens organically, you get like a text or a call saying, Hey, do you wanna come right with us? How does that work?

I think it happens all different ways. Sometimes it’s a friend of a friend. You connected and meet someone…so yeah, I’d say it happens in so many different ways. You never know. But that’s what I like about living here too. You never know what’s around the corner.

Do you start with the music or the lyrics?

I tend to start with the lyrics, and like I was saying, it’s much easier for me to craft the music around the lyrics. And then it shows me with the lyrics, oh this is the chorus, this is the same thing, this is what the song is about, this is what I’m trying to say. And I tend to work a lot of the times, backwards. I usually tend to come up with the chorus first, and then like “Shadow Catcher”, you know…shadow catcher trying to reach the summer sun…I wrote that first, and then Jane Knowles wrote the verse keep trying to get your head on right. But we worked backwards from that. 

“Bounded Beauty” was um…[laughs] I wish I had saved a lot of my drafts. I tend to be like, okay, I’m done with that, and I’m gonna start a new page. And I’ll just throw out all the things. I like to not hang on to all my old stuff. But I have to remember this…But “Bounded Beauty” I came up with, because I wanted to write a song about my great-grandmother. She had been put in an insane asylum by her husband; which they now figure was for postpartum depression. And she spent the rest of her life there…It always disturbed me so much when I would hear this story, and I wanted to write about it. And at the time I was writing about it there was also the women who were really fighting for all that stuff that was going on in Iran, for women. And you know, they’re still fighting for their rights, and that’s where I got “Bounded Beauty”… So you know, it was like stuff going on in the world, and stuff I wanted to tell about my ancestors. That’s what created that song.

I was actually about to segue into that, but you did it for me. Using “Bounded Beauty” as the template. When you write lyrics, do already have the melody? Or do you take the lyrics and find the melody within that?

What I’ll start to do is, I’ll just pick up the guitar and then there’s certain songs on this record that was written on piano…Like “double vision” I wrote that on the music, that’s on the piano. “Shadow Catcher”, well, I wrote some on the acoustic, but it was much easier on the piano. But most of the time I will just pick up a guitar, because it’s easier sometimes to pluck a few chords; and I’ll just start singing the words. And just start playing different chords, and then the melody will come. Or sometimes I do wake up in the night. I should always have—though you’re not supposed to sleep with your phone next to your bed—but I should always have some kind of recording thing, because I do get ideas in the night, and I’ll jump up and I’ll be like “Oh wait! That idea was for me. That’s a song.” I run to the phone and record it. And then most of the time I can’t understand what I’m saying. It’s all garbled. But you know, it’s just kinda how I get a lot of my melodic ideas. They just come to me. The lyrics I have to sit and just write. I just tend to take a legal pad, like I have a gazillion of these [shows one], you know, legal pads…and I tend to start trying to write everything I can think of about the idea I have, and sometimes it’s not the chorus or whatever, but then it’ll turn into something else. 

And one thing I’ve think I’ve gotten better at, that I used to when I was younger, and just kind of starting out with songs, is that I wouldn’t necessarily always be clear about what I was talking about…Everything kind of has to support the idea, the point of your song. Or sometimes I would write too poetically and kind of frilly…And as I’ve evolved as a songwriter, I mean, you’re always just trying to improve, you know. It’s like the golden onion, like you never stop peeling back and trying to improve. I just fell like you want every like that’s there to kind of be there for a reason. I mean, that’s not always the case, you know, with hit songs, or different things. But a lot of the times…It’s also how it sounds. That’s what I realized too, writing rhythmically, is really important too.

Yeah definitely. I do the phone thing too. I took a guitar YouTuber to say that you should always grab your phone and record yourself for me to be like, “oh, that makes total sense”. Because as soon as I stop the three notes that I just played, I forget them two seconds later. And so now the amount of riff I have on my phone. It’s like when you go looking back, and it’s like, that was good, or what the hell were you thinking there?

It’s like Quincy Jones says, I love this quote, he says, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Like, save those ideas. There might be a seed of something in there that you might, you know, think it’s not goof, and you just kind of delete it or throw it away. But he’s like you know, give it a chance to geminate a little bit, you know? And yeah, I always record now record stuff. And if I’m co-writing, I am always the one recording. And usually it like…”oh, oh, wait, I wasn’t recording” and I’m like, “I was. I got it.” I used to do this more—now I record it—but I’d be like “Oh, that’s so good. I’m never gonna forget it!” [laughs] Like a melody. I was like “oh, there’s no way I’m gonna forget that, I’ll remember….” I have no idea, no idea…so yeah…lesson for everyone always record your ideas, anything that you’re doing.

Yeah, about three months ago I was scrolling though my phone. There’s a song I’ve half written, and it’s like the definitive version, and I’m going back (through my recordings) and found the first version of the song. I have zero memory of that first version. And then a day later another version, and it’s more like the “definitive version”. But that first version’s pretty cool, but I have zero recollection of it. It’s so bizarre. 

I I’ve done that as well. I’m like, I don’t remember this melody. These were like,  what was I thinking? Maybe you’re just like, totally in the flow state you’re not…it’s good…you’re not thinking about…it’s good you recorded it.

Listening to your “Bounded Beauty” demo [from 2022], it’s just you and your guitar. What’s the process going from that to the final version?

I actually found an older version [pulls out her phone and plays the mumbled voice memo]. Listening to the rest is going to be painful. But I did have a lot of the second verse in there already. And those first few lines of that song were with me from the beginning. But there were a couple lines there—you probably have it in that demo—that…there were a few lines that I changed. And I created the verse about the name of the insane asylum, and that it was her husband, and you know…but there was a few lines from the beginning, the first demo that were in there already. So yeah, I have the words and I’m just trying to find the feel of the song. Am I going “oooooh!” Or is this…it wound up being more of this country type of song. Anyways, that’s a long explanation.

That’s kind of what I want from this version of interview. It’s kind of a mystifying process to people, writing songs. Usually when breaking down songs, it’s the final version, and it’s like, “there’s this part, then this part”, instead of the mumbled beginning, and that process.

It’s usually always a mumbled beginning [mumbles melody]. And you’re just trying to find words. I mean, that how a lot of writers write. I know that personally. They just pick up the guitar, and they’re like [mumbles another melody] and then they try and see what words come out. You know? I tried to do that. I used to just sit at the piano for hours and try to write the music and the lyrics together. That did not work for me. A great songwriter here, Gary Burr—I written with him years ago—and he was like, “try writing the story first”. And that changed my whole way of writing; and it didn’t become so painful, where I was just sitting at the for piano five hours, and sometimes I’d get like, one line.

There’s a great book too, for anyone listening. I love Jeff Tweedy’s book on songwriting, How To Write One Song…He makes you feel like, no matter where you are. If this is you first song, or this is your thousandth song. It is a mystifying process for everyone, no matter. I’ve written with writers who’ve had a lot of hits and who have been doing this far longer than I have. And I think they also sometimes find it really mystifying. And I think it’s because it like lighting in a jar, thing. Where you’re trying to have lots of note and lyrics and all kinds of stuff, but it’s lightning in a jar when you capture that right moment, that right thing that it all clicks together. You know? And for me, I never think like I’m gonna try and write a hit, or I’m trying to write for this. I really feel like you authentically write what feels right to you. And I think that’s why, that Billie Eilish song from Barbie was so great. I think there are certain things that really shine through. That Mitski song “My Love is Mine All Mine” has become a huge song. And she said she got from just being in the grocery store, or something…she was holding her groceries, and it just come in…Just, it’s…it’s within all of us. We all have that spark of creativity, and it’s just about following it.

Yeah. So when you taking it from the demo stage and into the studio. Are you going in with an idea in mind of how the rest of the song sounds? Or do you kind of let the musicians you bring in, add their own thing on top of it?

I feel like that’s the producers job. When he hears different parts. I’m not an artist who wants to be a producer. I know a lot of artists want to produce their own stuff, and it’s amazing…Though I did have a clear vision of what I wanted this to sound like, and with all these songs I discussed it with my producer, Joe Pisapia. We sat a long time. I had demos, and then we remade a demo together. And that was just acoustic. It wasn’t anything fancy. It was just getting the parts out, like okay, this is my demo…but do you think this part should repeat? How its it exactly going to play out on the record? It’s different from a demo as opposed to a finished thing on a record, you know? It this going to be a fade out at the end? Or I think this should be an instrumental here…You know, we brought in Mickey Rafael playing the harmonica. He was Willie Nelson’s harmonica player for fifty years. And it was like, “Turn Down The Lights”, that was the last song we recorded. It’s just acoustic guitar and harmonica, and a little bit of strings. It’s like, I had a pretty clear vision of things. And “Turn Down The Lights”, we did another version in the studio. It was the second song we recorded after “Dreamy Feeling”, and he took it more in a soul kind of vibe. And we listened to it, and I really didn’t like it. He didn’t either. I said I think we should do it like the original demo, which is just me with an acoustic guitar. And that’s what worked. So sometimes a song can really change after you go into the studio. But I would sat to me, like the most layers on any song in this record, was probably “Double Vision”, because there’s a lot of harmonies. That was a song I was still writing the morning I recorded it. It very inspired by, I’m a big fan of the Beatles and George Harrison, and I wanted to say something in the song. But also at the end, I really wanted it to be like a mantra. 

Especially coming from California. I’m all about exploring, and I’ve always been a searcher, and for all kinds of things, but sometimes I feel like people, they don’t give themselves enough credit. They have everything within them to do all of this healing…There’s every kind of modality. That’s why I say “you’re already there”. I really feel like whatever your belief is, like the kingdom of God, or whatever you want to call it, is within us. We are all a part of that. That’s eternal. That doesn’t really go away.

Maybe going off of that, for people trying to find their voice. What is your advice for someone who’s maybe a bit hesitant to put themselves out there? Or maybe do you have any advice of where to look for other like minded people?

I mean, I think COVID changed so many things for songwriters. Because before there were a lot of songwriters who would never write online. And then after COVID happened. Everyone’s getting on Zoom, there’s no choice. So I feel like now, more than ever, I feel like people have so much more opportunity to collaborate online. I think if you want to look at your organization, if you’re in a P.R.O, like ASCAP or BMI, or something, that’s a good place to start. And I think for someone who’s really just starting out. Like, open mic nights. I just feel like there’s so many more opportunities for songwriters now more than there was, even when I was starting our. Like it’s grown. I feel like it’s exploded. I don’t know, it just everywhere I go I feel like, and not just because it’s Nashville, even in LA, I felt like there’s a lot of stuff. Especially young songwriters, people in high school. So I mean, there’s songwriting retreats. There’s songwriting camps for like middle schoolers and high schoolers, and if you’re like, 60, and you’re just wanting to write a song and starting out that way. Same thing with so many open mics, and you can go and meet other people who are also just starting out.  Take a songwriting class at your local college, you know? I feel like almost everyone will have some kind of community centre or college or something near them…Unless you’re super duper out in the country. And then I suppose you’re gonna go online. But I feel like there’s just so many more opportunities now than there used to be.

Wrapping up…How has your process changed from when you were starting out to now?

I think I’m a lot less critical of myself, you know? I feel like when I was starting our I was…I definitely had a perfectionist streak in me. “That’s not good! Oh no, no, no!” Like constantly. And it’s like I remember someone saying, not to me, but hearing “I would never judge someone else like that. And I would never say that to another songwriter if they were throwing an idea out, so why would I do that to myself?” So I think that’s the biggest thing. Be kind to yourself and allow it naturally to come out. Don’t try and shape it and chisel it, and hammer it [laughs], just let it come out. Just go to your instrument, or if you don’t or can’t play, go and…you know, people love singing in the shower or car…Paul McCartney, “Yesterday”, was scrambled eggs, so yeah. You don’t even really need to play an instrument or anything. Just go sign something and record it. You might have “Yesterday” and not even know it. So yeah, I believe everyone is creative and has something to offer. I’m not saying writing songs, that might now be your thing, but I do believe everyone has something creative in them…Record your ideas, and don’t be hard on yourself.

That’s good advice. It’s really hard to get past that point. Especially when you’re starting something new. You are very critical of it…

And take a break from social media!…When I’m really writing and stuff, for various reasons I don’t want to be on social media. I don’t wanna be like…I even stop really listening to a lot of other music to a certain degree. I really don’t wanna be influenced by anything I’m hearing, ‘cause I’m kind of in my cocoon and it feels like a blissful, great place to be. And I enjoy that because you don’t get that moment often. That’s like a rare moment. And yeah, take a break from social media where you’re gonna compare yourself to someone who’s like winning Grammy’s or something. And you’re starting going “what? How am I…?” There’s all this kind of negative self talk that musicians or creatives are so sensitive inherently, which is what makes them so great, and which is why you are needed in the world, so much, right? To bring harmony to this world. But I think if you can take a break, because you know, always paying attention to what others are doing, is not always a good thing…

I think so much is really knowing that your gifts you’ve been given are yours. I believe for eternity they’ll never be taken away. So never stop working on it. You know, it’s having faith or trust in the universe, that when the time is right, then you know things will happen for you. But you have to keep asking, and I think not asking, but believing it.

If you were to meet a civilization that had never heard music before, what song would you play them?

“Imagine” by John Lennon or “The Mission” Ennio Morricone

Thank you again to Mary. You can check her out here.

Leave a comment on who you’d like to see me interview. And check out Backline Beat on Youtube. Thanks.

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                                                      — Jade Dempsey  

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